My review of Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue appeared on Kitaab a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a preview:
“Singapore is a unique agglomeration of cultures, history and contemporary prosperity, and so for this lover of South Asian literature, Zafar Anjum’s The Singapore Decalogue is a welcome entry into Singaporean literature from an Indian migrant’s perspective.”
Having read Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing and Thinner than Skin, two of the author’s later novels, I thought I knew what to expect from her: beautiful, ornate yet precise language combined with a complicated yet ultimately somewhat flat plot. (I’m still holding out hope that her great novel will be her next book, she’s building up to something big.) However, The Story of Noble Rot is a very different book. It’s easy to say in retrospect that this is clearly a first novel, in which the Khan found her voice and set herself on the writing path. But the style of this first novel is so very different from her later writing that it is actually difficult to see the connections.
The Story of Noble Rot is comical, in a bleak way. As one reviewer from The Indian Review of Books put it, it’s “pleasantly quirky”. This is a world away from her other novels (the two that I’ve read), which are uniformly serious, earnest even, in the way that a lot of Pakistani writing in English seems to be (OK, not Mohammed Hanif). There are elements of the fantastical and the fable in this novel, making it vaguely reminiscent of some of Githa Hariharan’s earlier writing, or even Aravind Adiga.
The Story of Noble Rot is essentially a tale of class inequalities and the middle- and upper-classes’ sense of entitlement in contemporary Pakistani society. It is the type of tale that has been told frequently in Indian English literature, because it is an issue that is just getting worse in the region. A house-servant witnesses the corruption of her mistress and a complicated game of blackmail ensues, in which the grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous.
The title is intriguing, enigmatic and clever, as it sums up so much of what this book is about—or, rather, what it explores, because it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing. But, as a thread running through the novel is the enjoyment of wine, the title is actually connected with that: “The sweet taste of the wine comes from the muscadelle grape, and the grayish mould that it attracts. The fungus sucks water from the grape, leaving it with an unusually high quantity of sugar and glycerine. We have lovingly named the mould pourriture noble, noble rot.” (p. 121).
I have written before on this blog that I feel I don’t have the right vocabulary to discuss graphic literature properly. I still feel this way, but I’m trying to become more familiar with the genre, so the last time I was in India I picked up this graphic novel, Delhi Calm.
Delhi Calm is certainly a novel, unlike other works of graphic literature that I’ve read and reviewed, which are compilations or part of a series. It is set in Delhi during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of the late 1970s, beginning just before the Emergency does, and ending at its abolition. The narrator is a young newspaper employee who finds himself out of a job when his office closes in fear, and becomes involved in underground, anti-government politics. The title comes from an international newspaper headline, the day after the Emergency was declared.
It is difficult to describe a plot as such, because so much of the ‘action’ is visual. The story itself is a fairly predictable exploration of living under the Emergency, but the visual depiction of masked characters are what give the novel depth. The masks hide peoples’ true selves, their real political identities, and what is left visible are generic faces, indistinguishable from each other.
I enjoyed Delhi Calm but I felt it was rather long, at 246 pages (and large pages at that). But then, perhaps the mode of reading a graphic novel is very different from reading text, and I wouldn’t consider a 246 page textual novel too long (unless it was very bad, of course). So I think I need to keep training myself to read this genre more effectively and appreciatively.
Pankaj Sekhsaria’s debut novel, The Last Wave: An Island Novel is fascinating for the way it depicts a part of India often ignored in literature: the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, just south of Burma but mostly administered by India. The only other literature I have encountered that is set in the Andamans is Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, and I’m not sure that this should be the place’s sole literary representation! (A ‘feminist’ Lord of the Flies).
Sekhsaria is an academic who works on the Andaman Islands—he has written two non-fiction books on them already—and also writes regular journalistic pieces on them. This depth of knowledge comes through very clearly in this novel, and a great deal can be learnt about the history of the islands, their settlement, the challenges facing the native peoples and the mainland Indian settlers from The Last Wave. But it is more than an anthropological tract, as Sekhsaria intertwines this depth of knowledge with a realistic and somewhat charming love story, running parallel to a plot about outsiders’ attempts to ‘save’ the indigenous Jawara people of the Andaman Islands.
Sekhsaria addresses the issue of how ‘mainstream’, mainland India (which generally means northern and/or metropolitan) perceives and treats the country’s minorities. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands—of which there are several, but the novel focuses on the Jawara people—are considered savages (‘junglees’) by mainland Indians, little more than wildlife. In fact, safari-style tourism still occurs on the Andaman Islands, something that Sekhsaria discusses: “The promotion was blatant and often outrageous” writes Sekhsaria. “’See and feel the primitive dark tribe of the Andaman forests’ went one catch line; ‘A once in a life time opportunity of meeting primitive naked people’, read another.” (p. 226). Of course, as with so many instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication between cultures, women are employed as symbols. Sekhsaria writes of a Bengali tourist to the islands encountering a Jawara woman:
“Here was a woman who was what a woman should not be: a woman not conscious of her body and her nakedness, who had no lajja, no shame. Haldar’s wife held up the Jawara woman’s right hand, picked up a bunch of bangles and slipped them effortlessly over the dark bare wrist.” (p. 65)
However, it must be said that Sekhsaria’s writing is strongest when he is discussing the historical, anthropological or sociological elements that comprise the novel. He does make his language engaging, interesting and befitting the fictional genre, but the other aspects of the novel are rather weak, so I wonder if perhaps non-fictional genres would better suit the author’s talents and knowledge—creative non-fiction, for instance. The overreliance on dialogue—stilted at that—when characters are interacting with each other results in flat characterisation. Too much exposition of inter-personal feeling is left to dialogue. Further (and I give nothing away by writing this), the climactic episode of the 2004 Boxing Day Indian Ocean Tsunami, after which the novel is named, is very poorly written. The drama and devastation is not captured at all. I had to rely upon my memory of watching footage of events to picture what the author was attempting to portray, as the prose itself was not enough.
I did enjoy The Last Wave, though. It is a charming and interesting novel, and unless one is an anthropologist or a student of anthropology, one seldom has much opportunity to learn about the Andaman Islands, so I appreciate Sekhsaria’s foray into this genre.
After a few weeks of politically-heavy articles at Himal, we have just published this piece on Indian Jewish literature, by Navras Jaat Afreedi.
I’ve copied the first paragraph below, and the rest can be read here.
“2013 was an exciting year for Indian Jewish literature: two works of fiction were published, one in Hindi, the other in English. Sheela Rohekar’s Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha (Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga) is one of only two Hindi novels depicting Indian Jewish life, and the first Hindi novel in 52 years to explore the Bene Israel community, the largest Jewish group in India. Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, is the first novel by a member of the Baghdadi community, the latest Jewish settlers in India, and one of the only two novels to depict Baghdadi Jewish life there. Both authors are women, legatees of a rich tradition of women’s writing among Indian Jews.”
I’ve just had my article “Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels” published in the online, non-academic literary journal, The Critical Flame. It focuses on three novels: Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (translated from Urdu), Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Vaasanthi’s Birthright (translated from Tamil, and also reviewed by me here.)
TCF came to my attention a few months ago when they announced that for a whole year, they would only publish reviews and criticism of literature written by women and minorities, to help rectify a general imbalance in reviewing practices. I’d been looking for serious, intellectual open-access journals and magazines with which to publish, and TCF seemed to fit the bill.
The first paragraph is extracted below, and you can read the whole article here.
“Indian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.”
My review of Vipul Rikhi’s stories 2012 Nights has just been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Here’s an excerpt, and you can read the rest here.
“In 2012 Nights, Vipul Rikhi provides one possible answer to the question of what the classic One Thousand and One Nights would look like if it was told from a contemporary male perspective. In the original collection of tales, Scheherazade tells her husband, Schahriar, a story every night, but must leave each unfinished to prevent him from putting her to death, as he has done his previous wives after their first night of marriage. Rikhi employs many of the same structural and narrative techniques as the classic, such as the use of the framing story, embedded narratives, satire, parody and an unreliable narrator, but in other respects, his work does not resemble the folktale influences of its namesake.”